Tag Archives: surveillance

Furloughed NSA


If you’re reading this in the distant future, this is regarding the 2013 U.S. government shutdown and the NSA surveillance scandal

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Via FAIL Blog

The NSA Eavesdrops On Everyone Because… There’s Money In It?

This is the “nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition” moment of the whole Snowden saga, except instead of the Inquisition, it’s the Defense Industry. Last week, the House of Representatives had a vote to de-fund the NSA’s eavesdropping ability. In the end, the vote did not go through and the NSA still has money to collect all our data; but it was pretty close: 217 to 205 votes. Wired wondered if money had anything to do with the outcome of the vote and had the non-partisan, non-profit political money tracker maplight.org look into the matter.

Defense Contributions Chart

The evidence is pretty damning: the Congressmen that voted to continue funding the NSA’s activities received twice as much money from the Defense Industry. Why? Because NSA personnel are but a fraction of the NSA workforce. The rest is made up of contractors from companies like Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Booz Allen, where Snowden used to work. If NSA funding gets cut, the piece of the funding that goes to the contracts will also disappear, which obviously is not good for the defense contractors.

But it probably works the other way also: the more stuff the Department of Defense and Intelligence Community does, the more contractors they need, and the more profits the contracting companies make. Ergo, if the companies want to make more money, they need the government to do more stuff. And they can get the government to do more stuff by lobbying Congressmen and giving them a piece of the cut as donations. So, actual national security need aside, it behooves defense contractors if everyone believes that building systems which collect and analyze more data, better, and faster is a good thing. It’s like taking advantage of a fire to sell everyone in the neighborhood fire retardant furniture and clothing, which they probably don’t need. Except fire retardant wouldn’t threaten our civil liberties, the way being constantly monitored does.

And all of this, done on the taxpayer’s dime.

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From Maplight, via Wired

NSA Whistleblower Might Be A Genius, Might Be An Idiot

Ok, “genius” is probably a stretch, but the guy does appear to be smart:

  • He rose through the ranks of the government from enlisted soldier to security guard, to IT guy, to really well-paid IT contractor guy in Hawaii in less than 10 years
  • He’s definitely well-spoken and looks pretty smart in the video
  • He had the foresight to nobly out himself, get the protection of the public, get a pat on the back from the Pentagon Papers whistleblower, and go down in the history books, rather than wait until the CIA renditioned him to Poland
  • He gave up a super-well paying job in paradise to protect our democracy

Then again, he may not be the sharpest tool in the shed:

  • He gave up a super-well paying job in paradise to protect our democracy
  • He fled to Hong Kong, which is apparently the second worst place to flee to, if you’re running from the US government
  • He apparently used his real name when checking in to his hotel in Hong Kong, pretended the journalists got the wrong guy when they called, and then checked out
  • He doesn’t even have his high school degree, and even failed to get his GED
Edward Snowden

Edward Snowden


So at this point, Edward Snowden (whose name, it has to be said, kinda sounds like a Game of Thrones character or two) is to us much like Schrödinger’s cat, at both times smart and dumb. As for the NSA, if he’s smart, then he might’ve bested the them. If he’s dumb, how dumb is the NSA to have hired him?

One final note as we find out more about him: while all of the above is hard to dispute because much of it came from Snowden himself, one must also keep in mind, that when the Pentagon Papers whistleblower, Daniel Ellsberg, came out, the Nixon administration tried to discredit him in all kinds of ways, going as far as breaking in to his psychiatrist’s office, and hashing a plan to drug with him LSD. Of course, that action caused Ellsberg’s mistrial and is the reason he’s a free man today. The Obama administration will likely not make such an error, meaning that unless he escapes extradition, Snowden’s best chance is jury nullification.

In the meantime, we should all at least thank him for revealing the actual Facebook privacy settings:

Facebook privacy settings, with NSA


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Via The Wall Street Journal, Slate, NPR and Gawker and FAIL Blog

Obama Makes Distinction Between Light And Hardcore Surveillance

“Nobody is listening to your telephone calls.” The government collects “phone numbers … and duration of calls… they are not looking at people’s names and they are not looking at content.” – President Obama, today in San Jose, CA

That roughly translates into “we’re just kinda keeping an eye on you, not really… you know… super-monitoring your calls hardcore.” As if light surveillance is somehow okay in a free society and we should just get used to things being like this now. In a few more years, when persistent drones fly in our skies high above the clouds, and news breaks out that the feds are monitoring everyone’s movements on the ground, the response will be:

“Nobody is bugging your house. We’re just looking at where you go and for how long… we’re not looking at people’s names and we’re not watching you inside your own house.” – President Obama in the Panopticon of the future

Because that would be crossing some kind of line, whereas just keeping tabs on everyone is perfectly normal for a democratic government, composed by the people and for the people, to do.


Update, June 9th: The very next day, Obama added:

“You’ve got private companies that have a lot more data and and a lot more details about emails and phone calls than the federal government does,” he said.

“So we’re going to take that data from those private companies by force, because we realize that no one would sign up for a government-run Facebook.”

One nation, under surveillance

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Relax, The NSA Snooping On You Is Perfectly Legal

Many of the people that found themselves living in Soviet America today believe that the administration overstepped its bounds when it gave the NSA permission to monitor all calls in the country made on Verizon (and likely, all other carriers) and to search anyone’s data on Google, Facebook, Skype, Yahoo, etc. But what’s more shocking than the fact that the NSA is doing it is the fact that it’s all on the up-and-up.

Can you hear me now? Then the wiretap is functioning properly.

The wiretapping is allowed by section 215 of the Patriot Act, which was the legislative overreaction to 9/11. (The feds already had all the information they needed to stop the attacks — they just hadn’t put all the pieces together yet.)  Originally, then-Senator Obama was against the KGB-like powers the bill gave to the government agencies, and in 2005, he even sponsored a bill that would’ve put an end to it all. But, in early 2006 the powers that be got to him, and he actually voted to extend the Patriot Act. In this video from his 2008 campaign, he explains why, starting at 3:15:


Long story short, he didn’t think the Patriot Act was all that bad anymore, he tried to make it better and promised to remove the illegal wiretapping via executive order, when he got to office. And so he did: now, the wiretapping still goes on, but it’s all legal. The feds secretly ask a secret court to issue a subpoena for vague “national security” reasons, and it happens. There’s Congressional-ish oversight, in that the 7% of Congressmen — those who sit on the Intelligence Committees — get biannual reports on the NSA’s actions. But, if they don’t like something, all they can do is make vague warnings because all the information they get in those reports is classified. With 93% of Congress in the dark, the rest under a gag order, and the secret court handing out blank checks, the system ensures that abuses of power can never see the light of day.

And again, it’s 100% legal: this is how terrorist wiretapping is supposed to work, under the Patriot Act. As for getting a backdoor to search all the data Google and Facebook have to offer, that’s also legal because it’s all voluntary-ish: the feds offer those companies legal immunity from lawsuits, and in return they get to snoop on everyone conversations. Let’s just hope they don’t accidentally leak more of Petraeus’ emails.

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From NPR

Another Study Shows Red-Light Cameras Increase Accidents And Costs

Since at least 2005, study after study has shown that while red-light cameras decrease T-collisions from the side, they increase rear-end accidents more than enough to make up for that benefit. The latest study comes from New Jersey’s Department of Transportation: it showed that total accidents have increased 1% and rear-end collisions have increased 20% at intersections with red-light cameras. Accident costs have gone up by a million dollars.

The companies which sell and operate those cameras to municipalities, for sizable profits, have been surreptitiously setting up and funding grass roots efforts — with names like Traffic Safety Coalition — to portray the cameras as a safety-driven, moral requirement. In Florida, the law legalizing them was named The Mark Wandall Traffic Safety Act, after someone who died in a red-light accident. From The Chicago Tribune:

[Red-light camera industry consultant] Goldner acknowledged last week that the coalition’s strategic model involves an early appearance in markets that interest [red-light camera company] Redflex, building community support, finding examples of children victimized by errant drivers, videotaping their parents and then asking sympathetic policymakers to file a bill or pass an ordinance in support of automated traffic cameras.

With the guise of safety unraveling, the other benefit of red-light cameras comes into prominence: money. Many cash-strapped cities in the past few years have instituted red-light cameras, ostensibly to save lives; but one has to wonder if the motivation is that pure when most cities stand to make quite a bit of money from tickets issued by the cameras. (One notable exception is the city of Alpharetta, GA, which sets up its contracts to always break even.) Some cities go as far as shortening the yellow light duration down to illegal levels in order to hand out more citations.

But, it turns out that even the promise of filling cities’ coffers is a false one: red-light camera programs make money during the first couple of years until drivers learn where the cameras are and then adjust their behavior accordingly. After that, cities lose tens of thousands of dollars per year on the programs, and are often stuck in contracts which require them to pay a hefty penalty if the cameras are removed. In 2011, Los Angeles voted to remove its cameras, which overwhelmingly issued citations for illegal right turns, and cost the city a million dollars per year. In Houston, a referendum forced the government to shut down its program, even while the city faced a 25M$ penalty for doing so. So far, seven states have banned the use of cameras altogether.

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From Courier Post, via Slashdot

Facebook Eavesdrops And Tells On You To The Cops If You’re Bad

Like any good Big Brother, Facebook has to make sure you don’t do anything out of line. After all, as Spiderman taught us, with great power comes great responsibility — and it would be pretty irresponsible for Mark Zuckerberg to not stop statutory rape, drug deals, or movie piracy if he could. And can he ever! After all, everything you say and do on Facebook is stored forever in its metallic memory banks, along with who you said it to and how you know each other.


But thankfully, according to Reuters, our robot overlord tries to protect your privacy from the eyes of other humans and only alerts a warm-blooded person if something looks really suspicious — like if you were going to meet up with a 13 year old girl with no mutual friends after school for some statutory rape. And then, that helpful person calls the cops, sends them your entire Facebook history, and voila! Spiderberg saves another person from the menaces of society. If only cell phone carriers, Skype, Gmail, and heck, even the US Postal Service and UPS did the same thing — think how many lives it would save! Total, automatic surveillance: the utopian panopticon of the future. After all, if you have nothing to hide, what are you worried about?

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From Reuters, via CNET

CCTV Baby Toy by Banksy

Banksy apparently has a pretty funny website now (especially his FAQ page), and one of the things on it is a build-your-own Banksy product section. This month’s is a CCTV mobile — not a portable surveillance system, but the kind that’s pronounced moe-bee-uhl (like Mobile, Alabama), and means kinetic sculpture.

Build your own Banksy product, this month:

CCTV mobile. Not available in the shops. You will need; wood, string, plastic tube, nails, lead paint.

Total assembly required. Keep out of reach of children.

From Banksy, via Laughing Squid

The Gestapo Wants You To Think Of The Children

The why-won’t-anyone-think-of-the-children argument is a very effective way to win an argument: are you for or against a bill that increases government surveillance of everyone, in order to catch child pornographer? If you say you’re against, how can be so cruel, and possibly a child pornographer yourself? It’s a nice way to use guilt and/or popular opinion to get what you want. Children themselves do this very well: “why won’t you buy me that toy, mommy? Is it because you don’t love me?” And now, the House Judiciary Committee are using the same method to force Internet service providers to keep everyone’s Internet addresses, which change from time to time, for a year; most keep them for 30 or 60 days now.

Of course, when they were asked to limit the use of those addresses to child porn investigations, the lawmakers showed their true colors and refused. So it’s not about kiddy porn at all, but rather that’s just a red-herring so that Big Brother can surveil all of us — the vast majority of which are innocent, and 99.99% of whom aren’t child pornographers. But to hell with everyone’s freedom of privacy: won’t anyone think of the children? The House is going to vote on the bill probably in September.

From NPR